Union captain Alejandro Bedoya eager for Sunday opener at Vancouver

Union captain Alejandro Bedoya eager for Sunday opener at Vancouver

CHESTER, Pa. -- When Alejandro Bedoya came to Philadelphia last summer, it was a landmark moment in the Union’s relatively short history. 

But as with any player who arrives from Europe midway through the MLS season, there were some difficulties for Bedoya as he got settled with a new club and a new league. 

Now though, as the U.S. national team stalwart prepares to enter his first full MLS season as the team’s unquestioned leader and captain, there’s nothing holding him back.

“It’s starting to feel finally like home,” Bedoya said. “Philly’s starting to feel like a true home.” 

Bedoya certainly showcased some of his considerable skills last season after arriving from France’s FC Nantes, starting the final 10 games of the season and scoring one of the best goals of Philly’s 2016 season.

But the team never gained much traction with him in the midfield, going winless in their final eight games and getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round by eventual MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC.

For Bedoya, going through an offseason that allowed him and his family to get settled in Philadelphia and a full preseason that allowed him to show his personality to his new teammates was critical.

“I’m taking a more proactive approach,” Bedoya said. “Guys have been able to see what I’m all about. I hope I can bring my experience and my characteristics to make the team better. 

“It’s a good group of guys, to be honest. I’m really excited.”

Union head coach Jim Curtin announced Wednesday that Bedoya would wear the captain’s armband for the team’s 2017 opener at the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday -- a role he earned by taking on a leadership role during the past month in preseason camp in Florida.

Brian Carroll and Maurice Edu have been the team’s captain for much of the past two seasons but Edu is still recovering from an injury that kept him out of the entire 2016 campaign and the aging Carroll may struggle to find regular minutes.

For now, at least, this team belongs to Bedoya.

“He’s been a great leader all preseason,” Curtin said. “He’s been a player that’s played at the highest level internationally for the national team, for big clubs in Europe. He’s always been a really strong contributor. Now, the challenge he’s really stepped up to meet is to become more of the guy that everyone looks to for leadership. He’s embraced that role.”

Curtin hasn’t said exactly where Bedoya will play, but most signs indicate that he’ll be deployed as an attacking midfielder in front of string-pulling playmaker Haris Medunjanin -- a new addition to the club that, like Bedoya, boasts experience at both the World Cup and in Europe.

It’s a combination that the Union coach is very high on leading into the opener.

“I think it’s clear Ale and Haris have a real understanding for each other, a real respect for each other,” Curtin said. “They’re internationals that have played at the highest level at big clubs. Their experience speaks for itself. 

“They’re our leaders. They’re the guys who have been through the wars. This will be a tough game on the road in a hostile environment. The easiest way to put it is they’re two of our best players. And you always need your best players on the same page.”

Bedoya roomed with Medunjanin during the preseason, which helped the two get on the same page. Now, they’re ready to show it off in 2017 and control the middle of the field together for a team gunning to return to the postseason -- and win the club’s first-ever playoff game once they get there.

“I love playing with Haris,” Bedoya said. “Soccer sees soccer. We understand each other very well right away. He had a great experience in Europe. He has a great left foot, great vision, great passing range. We’re definitely comfortable finding each other.”

As for being the captain, Bedoya isn’t about to step on the toes of Carroll, the team’s longest-tenured player, or Edu, one of his best friends, who he’s eager to finally play with for the first time.

But he’s certainly ready to wear the armband whenever called upon and become a leader of a team he only got to know briefly last year.

“I like to lead by example,” Bedoya said. “And guys know they can feed off my energy.”

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

USA Today Images

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

CHESTER, Pa. — When Saturday’s game ended, Union midfielder Borek Dockal told head coach Jim Curtin two things: that his body felt fine and that he knows he can play a lot better.

That’s probably just about all Union fans need to hear.

Sure, it was a mostly uneventful and somewhat disappointing MLS debut for the team’s new Designated Player in a scoreless draw with Columbus Crew SC (see observations). But it’s also a long season and Dockal is still trying to mesh with his teammates and get his fitness up after dealing with a preseason ankle injury.

“I think he had some good moments,” Curtin said. “I think you can see his quality and how comfortable he is on the ball. He can pass and he looks forward. … [But] it’s been a week where he’s really trained with the group, so you see a ball played behind when he’s looking to play through. It’s going to take a little bit of time. But overall [I’m] happy with the amount of minutes he was able to push.”

Dockal, signed only three days before the start of the 2018 season, was a tougher critic on himself after sometimes struggling to connect passes and move to the right spot in his 77 minutes of action. But the Czech playmaker also acknowledged that he needs more time to adapt to MLS and learn his teammates’ tendencies.

“For me, it was the first game so it was a little bit about how to find my space on the field, to see how my teammates are moving, which kind of positions should I be in the most to help them,” said Dockal, who sat out the Union’s first game — a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. “So I just have to learn from this first game and be better the next game.”

Expectations will certainly be raised when the Union play their next game, in two weeks, on the road against the Colorado Rapids. But expectations are already high for Dockal, who has experience in the Champions League and with the Czech Republic national team.

Along with fellow newcomer David Accam — who he said the team needs to find more on the wing — Dockal is filling in what was a major position of need last year and should provide a major offensive punch in the midfield, playing in front of veterans Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.

It just hasn’t happened yet.

“My performance definitely can be better,” Dockal said. “But I have to start at some point so it would actually be a miracle if I played an excellent game today.”

“Overall, it’s a first step and nothing replicates these games,” Curtin said. “We didn’t put him on the ball as much as we would have liked. ... But he's an incredibly talented guy."

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

USA Today Images

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

CHESTER, Pa. — In a matchup of two teams with perfect records, it ended up being a stalemate.

On Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union and Columbus Crew SC fought to a scoreless draw as goalkeepers Andre Blake and Zack Steffen finished with three saves apiece.

The Union move to 1-0-1 on the season while the Crew, who entered the day in first place in the Eastern Conference, sit at 2-0-1.

• With the Union coming off a weird early bye week, the game lacked fluidity for much of the first half as both teams only put one shot on target before halftime. 

• Borek Dockal, the Union’s new Designated Player, made his MLS debut after sitting out the opener. The Czech playmaker looked tentative early in the match and had some giveaways in the second half before coming out in the 77th minute. It’s too early, of course, to make any judgements but that probably wasn’t the kind of debut head coach Jim Curtin hoped to see.

• David Accam, the team’s other prized newcomer, enjoyed good start to the second half and was active throughout in his second game in Philly. It shouldn’t be long before he opens his account for the Union.

• Steffen came through with a couple of big saves early in the second half for Columbus. It might be hard for some Philly fans to see the Downingtown native and former Union academy player on the visiting side, even if they do get to cheer for a star ’keeper of their own in Blake.

• CJ Sapong, fresh off signing a new contract, couldn’t get on the ball much or even get any shots off. The Union striker had three goals and three assists in seven previous meetings against the Crew.

• On the other end of the field, Gyasi Zardes was held in check after scoring three goals in his first two games for Columbus following a trade from the LA Galaxy. That’s a good sign for the progress of Philly’s young center backs, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty.

• Ray Gaddis entered the game as a halftime sub for Fabinho, who left with a leg injury. Fabinho and Gaddis are both two of the club’s longest-tenured players, and Gaddis being able to play as both a left back and right back is a nice luxury to have off the bench.

• Despite an announced attendance of 15,323, the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium looked smaller than usual — and with less energy. A lot of that probably has to do with the on-field play but in general, the Union seem to have a better home-field advantage during night games, when the atmosphere is more electric.

• A shoutout to the Sons of Ben, though, for unveiling some cool Philly tifo before kickoff — a “cheesesteak shark” preying on a boat of Crew rowers underneath the word “Jawns.” 

• The Union — who are 4-1-1 in their last six meetings with the Crew — are off again next weekend before before facing Colorado on March 31 in their first road game of 2018.